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Womenswear gets more mature for fall 2010: Collections by Som, Jacobs, Karan

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; C01

NEW YORK, FEB. 16 -- The most difficult thing to be in the women's ready-to-wear industry -- aside from a size 16 -- is a grown-up.

The fashion business reveres nothing quite like it worships youthfulness. As a culture, both men and women are forever chasing their youth, but the fashion industry's pursuit of an adolescent past is aggressive, unrelenting and, at times, desperate. Youth represents modernity and the next new thing, and if the fashion industry loses its ability to predict customers' desires long before they can even articulate them, then fashion loses its profit center.

But forever lunging toward the pink-cheeked and gangly can be particularly self-destructive -- and that's not merely a reference to the distressing sight of mutton dressed as lamb. Designers who willfully choose 15-year-old girls as emblematic of their ideal woman alienate the mature women who can actually afford their clothes and who lead the power-brokering, jet-setting lives that so often fuel fantasies in the atelier.

Fashion adores an enfant terrible, as well. Indeed, there are few other industries that use the term so liberally and with such enthusiasm. These young designers, known for their subversive attitude toward authority and tradition, provide the creative energy that fuels fashion. But they can also come across as the kids who refuse to grow up, forever building collections that are more self-indulgent than self-aware.

So it's worth pausing to admire a designer like Peter Som, who after taking a break from the runway, returned with a fall collection that perfectly blended a mature, uptown attitude with a psychedelic freewheeling joy. His explosion of stripes and abstract watercolor prints in a single ensemble, his playful manipulation of fur -- tie-dyed mink! -- and his exuberant use of color are welcome pronouncements that adults can be giddy. Indeed, they need a bit of silliness in their day-to-day.

One wants to applaud Jason Wu for his choice of inspiration: the fashion photography of Irving Penn. Those languid, black and white photographs of Penn's wife and model Lisa Fonssagrives are the epitome of urbane maturity. But once Wu strayed beyond his menswear-inspired tweedy daywear into cocktail and evening dresses, his silhouettes went awry. Women in the 1950s knew how to sit and walk with a big crinoline swishing about their legs, and more importantly, designers knew how to manipulate the crinoline underskirts so they wouldn't rise up and smother the daylights out of the poor sap who thought wearing it to dinner would be a grand idea. Wu's bell-shaped dresses inflated by thick crinolines called to mind floats -- of the Rose Bowl variety -- rather than soignee elegance. Grown-up clothes demand that a designer have grown-up skills.

Age and beauty

It takes experience, as well as confidence and chutzpah, for a designer to act like an adult in an industry that celebrates the infantile. Donna Karan has been consistent in her sophistication and swagger and for fall 2010, she designed one of her most powerful and sensual collections in some time. And Marc Jacobs required a steely confidence to shrug off the mantle of cool kid -- and embrace the distinction of being a smart kid, instead.

The rewarding result was a breathtakingly restrained and romantic collection, which he put on the runway Monday night. It may be underestimating the introspection of 20-somethings to say that they haven't had the life experience to create a collection like Jacobs's, which was simultaneously hopeful and melancholy. But it seems fair to say that Jacobs, with four decades of struggle, loves and losses under his belt, has a deeper well of emotions from which to draw than does some whiz kid of the moment.

Jacobs unveiled his collection in its usual location at the Lexington Avenue Armory. The walls had been covered with craft paper and the runway looked like little more than neatly laid cardboard. At the top of the runway was an enormous box, also wrapped in craft paper. At the appointed hour, Jacobs and his business partner Robert Duffy emerged from backstage to unwrap the giant box to reveal, essentially, a crate of models dressed in some of the most exquisite tweeds and knits in recent memory.

To the sad strains of "Over the Rainbow," the models, one by one, walked down the runway to show off A-line skirts that hugged the waist and floated over the hips, jackets that fit snugly through the shoulders and hovered around the waist, and intricately woven knits that seemed as light as a cloud.

There were no tricks in this collection, just knowing gestures and incredibly wise choices. Mongolian lamb jackets tied in the back with long ribbons, and full-legged trousers were cut with precision and generosity. His evening gowns, in crushed velvet or aged sequins, seemed to tell a tale of broken hearts, sweet memories and a few nights best forgotten. And his models, some young and others a bit older, served as reminders that growing up is not the same thing as giving up or giving in.

Back to the beginning

Karan also seems to find power in maturity and strength in experience. She titled her fall 2010 collection "Forever Black," a name that referenced the beginnings of her brand 25 years ago. In her program notes, she recalled how her fashion empire began: "We started with a city, a bodysuit, a pair of tights and the power of a woman." Decades later, Karan's business consists of everything from tights to furs. And it is as much a part of the New York story as Tiffany's or Macy's. But the one thing that has always been consistent, no matter what whimsy or folly has appeared on her runway, is that Karan has never forgotten that what is essential to fashion's unique character is its ability to help women -- and men, for that matter -- declare themselves present, desirable and powerful.

In the collection she put on the runway Monday afternoon, Karan once again made clear that she, like few other designers, understands how to communicate in an intimate whisper as well as a public swagger. Her clothes for fall are almost entirely black, with occasional splashes of pine green and a few jolting rays of violet and teal. Instead of cashmere, a fabric that was such a quintessential ingredient in her work that she named a fragrance after it, she relied on wool mixed with rayon and nylon. The effect was to ensure that her fabrics had give and stretch, but the blend also allowed for a certain sleekness that suggested the urgency of city life. Coats curved around the body like a protective shell and dresses just barely skimmed it, hinting at the figure hidden below but also keeping strangers just outside of one's personal space.

Her models walked the runway with their hair slicked back in no-nonsense styles and with their lips painted fire-engine red. Their heels were high, but no one teetered. And the large neck rings -- like elaborately beaded ruffs -- injected just enough girlish charm into each ensemble that there was never any danger of her models looking mannish.

Menswear approach

Designers who are showing their maturity aren't so much turning to menswear for inspiration, but rather taking notice of the way in which menswear designers approach style. Womenswear designers too often throw all manner of silly ideas at their customers in an attempt to appeal to their frivolous nature.

Rarely do menswear designers play such games. Most are like Richard Chai, who created desirable clothes for men that were rooted in comfort and ease, not reverie. His fall collection, filled with moss-colored leather jackets and slouchy trousers, made one wonder: Why can't more designers do that for women?

Thom Browne -- a menswear designer of significant flamboyance -- is really the exception in New York. His collection dares men to be as bold -- and occasionally as uncomfortable -- as women. His collection of ankle-grazing cable-knit sweaters, skirts trimmed in raccoon tails and jackets tailored with Old World sharpness give men the opportunity to use fashion to define themselves in bold strokes. It is playful and wry.

Browne's collection disarms with boyish insouciance, but he backs up his silliness and contrivances with just enough elegance to suppress that urge to giggle. There's something captivating about a tie-silk sarong dripping in fur tails draped on a model with the physique of a soldier and the carriage of Cary Grant. The reaction is complicated because Browne sends a dual message of traditional masculinity and femininity.

He does for men -- provocatively and unsparingly -- what Diane von Furstenberg quietly and effortlessly does for women: address the feminine and masculine aspects in every person's character. A quote in her program notes summed up her point of view concisely: "I've always wanted to live a man's life in a woman's body." Her collection, with its mix of leather and chiffon, lace and wool, applique and chain mail, gets at the daily tug-of-war in a woman's life. She is tough and nurturing, independent but not isolated.

Boardroom blazers are draped over lace party dresses; coquettish frocks in printed silk hide below serious cable knits and coats. Von Furstenberg clothes offer reassurance that a woman can be as powerful as a man. But they also make an even more dynamic and bold statement: A woman, just like a man, can age with dignity, style and sex appeal.

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